Students know there are certain benefits that come along with going to school in the nation’s capital. But this year’s graduates will get the ultimate D.C. experience in May: a chance to hear a former president at their Commencement ceremony speak.
In October, GW officials announced that George H.W. Bush and his wife Barbara will headline this year’s May 21 graduation event. University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said he’s known the 41st president for the past 15 years. Bush was elected in 1988 – the same year Trachtenberg took the helm at GW.
“President and Mrs. Bush came to GW in 1991. I went to the White House (to visit them),” Trachtenberg said. “We have a friendly relationship.”
University Marshal Jill Kasle, who coordinates and presides over GW’s academic ceremonies, said informal conversations between Trachtenberg and the Bushes began eight months ago. In June, Trachtenberg sent a letter to the former president and his wife inviting them to speak at Commencement. After about two weeks, the Bushes accepted Trachtenberg’s request.
“GW is a university without many traditions. We have no football team, but we do have a tradition of having former presidents and sitting presidents come to campus,” Kasle said. “Having (the) former president and Mrs. Bush speak at Commencement is a wonderful part of this tradition.”
Sixty years ago this spring, President Harry Truman spoke to GW students at their graduation ceremony.
Throughout his professional career, Trachtenberg has formed ties with several prominent government figures. Some of his contacts go back to his days as president of the University of Hartford in Connecticut.
“I was friends with Senator Joseph Lieberman and Senator Christopher Dodd during my Connecticut days,” he said. “I knew them very well.”
Trachtenberg’s son, Ben, attended private day school with former President Bill Clinton and Sen. Hilary Clinton’s daughter Chelsea. Trachtenberg said he became friends with the prominent political couple through the Parents Association at the Sidwell Friends School. Sen. Clinton, as the first lady, spoke to graduates in the mid 1990s.
“As I got to know the Clintons, they gave talks here and came to one basketball game where GW defeated (the University of Massachusetts), which was ranked first in the Atlantic-10 Conference at the time,” Trachtenberg said.
Commencement speakers don’t only address the graduating class but also receive honorary degrees – the highest honor the University can bestow, Kasle said. The nominee should be at the height of his or her professional career and must have made a noteworthy contribution that benefits public welfare or society as a whole. Kasle said it also helps if the candidate has a connection with GW.
The University typically invites as many as five people to speak at Commencement each year, and announces the speakers in the weeks leading up to graduation. But because this year’s ceremony won’t be taking place on the Ellipse as planned, Trachtenberg decided to announce the names of this year’s headline speakers early to spark excitement for the ceremony, Kasle said. GW announced Nov. 9 that the graduation event will take place on the Mall between 4th and 7th streets.
Trachtenberg said he’s gotten rave reviews on this year’s headline speakers.
Senior Aimee Schulman said she’s looking forward to attending Commencement on May 21, despite the fact that the ceremony won’t take place on the Ellipse.
“I think it’s great to have such a noteworthy couple speaking at my graduation,” Schulman said. “I am certainly excited to hear what George and Barbara Bush have to say about my future.”
Senior Dina Galante said she believes Trachtenberg’s decision to invite the Bushes to GW is good business for the University.
She said, “They need to satisfy the parents considering how much money we spend to come here.”